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Worldwatch Institute report finds global energy intensity increased in 2010 for second year in a row

Global energy intensity, 1981-2010. Click to enlarge.

Global energy intensity—defined as total energy consumption divided by gross world product—increased 1.35% in 2010, the second year of increases in the context of a broader trend of decline over the last 30 years, according to a new Vital Signs Online article from the Worldwatch Institute.

Between 1981 and 2010, global energy intensity decreased by about 20.5%, or 0.8% annually. Particularly during the surge of what was called the “knowledge-based economy” from 1991 to 2000, global economic productivity increased without parallel increases in energy use.

The article notes that worldwide energy efficiency had been increasing steadily until recently. Between 2004 and 2008, global energy intensity experienced its sharpest decline in 30 years, with an average annual growth rate of 1.87%. Starting in 2008-09, however, energy intensity again bumped up, experiencing the first rise in three decades.

Increases in economic energy intensity are especially discouraging, even when temporary. With both population and consumption growing worldwide, the capacity of the world’s economy to require less energy for each unit of output has been a rare positive trend for the environment. We need to find less energy-intensive ways to put people back to work and improve economic conditions.

—Worldwatch Executive Director Robert Engelman

In addition to technological advances, price developments play a key role in determining overall energy usage, Worldwatch notes. World crude oil prices more than tripled between 2004 and 2008—the fastest rise since the oil crisis of the late 1970s—contributing to the sharp decline in energy intensity during that period. But after the second half of 2008, when international oil prices dropped 75%, global energy intensity started rising.

Energy intensity is declining in many advanced economies, including the United States, Germany, and Japan. The most dramatic declines in industrial countries have occurred in the United States and Germany. Overall, China may have made the most progress worldwide with a 65% decline in energy intensity in the past 30 years.

Newly industrialized and transitional countries have experienced more turbulent energy intensity trends. South Korea’s energy intensity increased during the country’s rapid growth period of the 1980s and 1990s, but then declined sharply following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Since the early 2000s, the Korean government and industry have sought actively to shift the country’s energy use patterns by focusing more on advanced technology R&D and clean energy initiatives.

Global energy intensity is likely to keep rising in the next few years as the world continues to rely on large-scale infrastructure development as a means to create jobs and bring the global economy out of recession, according to Worldwatch. However, South Korea’s switch to a more environmentally friendly development pattern may mirror global trends. In the long term, a green transition could boost new industries, including clean technology and renewable energy, and cause global energy intensity to continue its decline.

The area of saving energy and using it more efficiently is one of the two key components of a sustainable energy transition, the other one being renewable energy production. Our research has shown that 50 percent or more of global electricity demands can be delivered by renewable energy if—but only if—renewable energy is implemented in tandem with energy efficiency.

—Alexander Ochs, director of Worldwatch’s Climate & Energy program

Further highlights:

  • Global energy intensity declined at an average annual rate of 0.98% in the 1980s and 1.40% in the 1990s. From 2001 to 2010, the rate dropped to 0.03%.

  • Between 1981 and 2002, China’s energy intensity declined 4.52% annually. Between 2005 and 2010, it declined 15.37%, although this fell short of the government’s goal of 20%. One reason for this shortfall is that more than half of China’s 4 trillion RMB (630 billion USD) stimulus plan was invested in infrastructure development, which drove up energy consumption.


Bob Wilson

One interesting comment in their synopsis is energy heavy industries like steel, moved to developing nations after a lot of the energy saving technologies were developed. Efficiency was exported with the technology, a good thing.

The full report costs $20 and I'm not sure I'm that curious about it. One question is whether the absolute energy consumption significantly changed during the economic downturn or does it lag or represent a hard floor?

Bob Wilson


It seems obvious that unemployed people (many more millions in 2009/2020) consume energy but do not produce anything thereby reversing the established energy density trend. If the western industrial nations manage to return 20+ M people to productive work, the energy density would return to previous years trend. That may not happen for a few more years.

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